Rabbi Aiello Making a Difference in Italy’s South

Rabbi Barbara Aiello lives in a 400-year-old house in Serrastretta, a small mountain town in Calabria, in the extreme South of Italy. She has converted the bottom floor into a synagogue (Ner Tamid del Sud) and a Jewish culture center in order to pursue her life’s work — to serve returning Bnai Anousim (descendants of victims of the Spanish Inquisition forced to convert to Roman Catholicism) in Calabria and Sicily.

My husband Aron and I visited Aiello during Passover, anxious to meet some of the members of her community returning to Judaism after a 500-year interruption.

Aiello, an Italian-American whose family members were among those Anousim, has been serving as a Liberal rabbi in Italy for five years, first in Milan and then in Calabria. She is Italy’s first and only female rabbi.

Aiello was delighted to be able to buy a portion of her house in Serrastretta, for it has been in her family for most of its 400-year history. Although she was born and raised in the US, she still has a large family in Italy — some 70 relatives.

Serrastretta is near the city of Nicastro, a town with a once-flourishing Jewish community. In the 1920s her father would ride down the mountain from Serrastretta in a horse-drawn wagon filled with artichokes to study Bible and a little Hebrew with a scholar in Timpone, the Jewish quarter of Nicastro. When Aiello took her father back to the Timpone in the 1970s, after a decades-long absence, he kissed the ground and cried.

Aiello likes to bring visitors to Timpone, emphasizing that the place was similar to so many other areas in Southern Italy. She says, “Timpone was a Jewish quarter, meaning that, unlike a ‘ghetto,’ where Jews were locked in from the outside, in Calabria and Sicily Jews lived in ‘quarters,’ which were open and offered free passage.” She pointed out signs pasted to walls in the quarter announcing “Ricorrenza il tredicesimo della scomparsi di Rosario Bandiera” or “La cena doppo sette giorni per Aprile Pasquale Bagnato.” (Thirteenth anniversary of the death of Rosario Bandiera; The meal after seven days for Aprile Pasquale Bagnato.) She cites these surnames – Bandiera, Bagnato, and Aprile – as examples of common Jewish names and says the continuation of practices such as remembering the anniversary of a death or having a meal after the seven-day mourning period are remnants of Jewish traditions of which few Calabrians are aware.

There are two streams (torrenti) running through Timpone. The Jews, who brought the silk and leather trades there in the 12th century, needed the moving water for their work. Aiello noted that Jews were taxed separately, that they were sometimes money-lenders, and that Jews started the institution of banking in Naples.

Church Relations

Aiello’s experience with the Catholic Church in Nicastro has been mixed. When she speaks, she refers to the spirit of dialogue espoused by Pope John Paul II, who referred to the Jews as “big brothers” of the Catholics. She says her purpose is to help Bnai Anousim understand their past, since this leads to a better future — whether or not they choose to return to Judaism. When she first arrived in Nicastro, two years ago, local priests were eager to have their congregants learn more about their Jewish heritage. In recent months, however, this has changed. Some say that the bishop is less than enthusiastic about discussing what has become the well-publicized historical Jewish presence in the area and has passed on this attitude to his parish priests.

Aiello identified a small church in Timpone that modern historians such as Prof. Vincenzo Villella, author of La Judecca di Nicastro, document as once having been the local synagogue. One clue is its rose window, in which the remnant of a Star of David can be seen. She also points to the squat shape of the building, typical of medieval synagogues but atypical of churches. There were also rumors of Jewish artifacts being found there. Interestingly enough, after Aiello suggested that the Jewish community might rent the dilapidated church for occasional synagogue use, the diocese suddenly commenced a grand renovation project, now complete, even though there is no active parish or priest assigned to the church and a symbolic mass is held only once a week.

Near the church is a garden containing a structure Aiello suspects was a mikveh (Jewish ritual bath). The owner of the mikveh garden, whose 90-year-old mother remembers parts of her Jewish past, was once supportive of the rabbi and her Jewish visitors. He even opened the garden to a Shavuot service two years ago. Unfortunately, he has now asked Aiello to make other plans because he has been told that his local business might suffer if he continues to promote the Jewish presence in Timpone. Aiello’s reaction to the situation is philosophical. She recalls that recent European history has included incidents where local communities were asked to return confiscated property to its rightful Jewish owners. “It could be that the locals are fearful,” she says.


Aiello also occasionally serves Liberal congregations and havurot in other parts of Italy. Among them is Turin’s Congregation Or Chadash, where she is official rabbi. She is responsible for 54 conversions in her five years in Italy. These are accomplished through the World Union of Progressive Judaism, which holds one Beit Din each year in Italy or elsewhere in Europe. Aiello is proud of her accomplishment in winning for Anousim a “Status Recognition” certificate, which includes the same study requirements as those for converts, but which affirms a Jewish heritage that had been stolen or nearly erased by the Inquisition or other persecutions.

Aiello says that her work is inspired by Gary A. Tobin’s 1999 book, Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community. From Tobin she learned how to extend the hand of Jewish welcome to newcomers and she counts Tobin among her supporters.

One of her favorite topics is extremism in religion, including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. She recently participated in a conference on Physical and Mental Abuse of Women Hidden in Religious Extremism, together with a Catholic nun and a Muslim woman.

Aiello is dedicated to teaching her new Jewish congregants that tikun olam (“repair of the world,” a basic tenet of Progressive Judaism) involves the whole world, and not just Jews. To that end, her congregants work with her to organize La Scuola sul Marcipiede (the Sidewalk School) so that the children of Rom (Gypsy) mothers can learn to read, write, and count while their mothers beg for money on local street corners.

The Seders

On the first seder night, we found ourselves in the Serrastretta shul, Ner Tamid del Sud (Everlasting Light of the South) with 23 other participants, six of whom had arrived unexpectedly. Aiello led, assisted by Salvo Parrucca, one of her Anous converts, who hopes to become a rabbi one day. (Parrucca was in the US and spoke before Kulanu gatherings in Washington and New York last year.)

Aside from the seven guests from the US and Australia, the group was composed of Italians with a Jewish family background who are exploring the religion. (One of the guests was Enrico Tromba, an archeologist who has done excavating of a Roman-era synagogue in Bova Marina.) We used a Liberal haggadah printed in Italian and Hebrew, with some Hebrew transliterations.

In addition, Aiello, a former puppeteer, created a script for the Passover story (Maggid di Pesach), written in such a way that the character can choose to read his/her part in either Italian or English. It was a delightful mishmash, as guests read in English and the locals responded in Italian. Characters were suited to children and adults and included a narrator, Yocheved (Moses’s mother), Baby Moses (who at different times said “Waaa!!!” or “Gooo…gooo”), Moses, Sheep (“Baaa”), the Voice of God, the pharaoh, and Miriam. Sound effects (fingers tapping on the table) were prescribed for the gallop of pharaoh’s horses.

After we were seated, the Passover platter made a grand entrance, and was passed around from guest to guest, held up over each head to demonstrate that we were once slaves in Egypt and carried heavy burdens on our heads. This is an ancient Passover tradition specific to the South of Italy. Centerpieces consisted of large bowls of charoset beautifully decorated with pine nuts. Ingredients included oranges, dates, figs, almonds, and apple.

Another custom new to us was the application of scallions in a whipping fashion on the next person during the singing of the chorus of Dayenu, to recall our days of slavery. This was a real crowd pleaser and ice-breaker.

Aron and I contributed one of our favorite seder rituals — reading the Four Questions in Luganda, the language of the Abayudaya — as a reminder that Jews everywhere celebrate the holiday at the same time.

The seder meal consisted of chicken rice soup (rice is kosher for Pesach in Sephardic cultures), roast lamb with salad, and a fruit cup.

Aiello led a second-night seder for her congregants at the Progressive Or Chadash synagogue in Turin, several hundred miles to the North. Held at the local children’s theater venue, 62 parents, children and Nonni (grandparents) were in attendance.

We rejoined her on the fifth night for a more intimate seder in Selinute, in the South of Sicily, where we found a delightful family of four. The rabbi explained that there is a custom for a fifth-night seder among Anousim in Italy, who knew Inquisition authorities would be watching them on the first and second nights. There is a double meaning, since hamishi means five, and its derivative hamishe means friendly (coming from the five fingers on the hand of friendship). Legend has it that Christian friends helped the Jews plan that event and kept it secret from Inquisition authorities. The tradition of the Hamishi Seder continues to this day, and it proceeded like the first night’s seder, except that it was completely in Italian and Hebrew (Aron and I have been studying Italian for a few years). The two young children couldn’t get enough of Dayenu. The menu consisted of matzah bruschetta with chopped tomatoes, garlic, basil, and olive oil (a delicious custom we will adopt every year), roast lamb with potatoes, and fruit. We have already been corresponding by email with that lovely family.

Rabbi Aiello noted that, sadly, many more guests had made reservations for the Sicilian seder. However, they failed to even notify their host they would not be coming. “This has happened here in Sicily in other years as well,” Aiello says, and continues, “Word has it that some Orthodox rabbis who invite Sicilian Jews to come north for High Holy Day services make it known that participating at Jewish functions with Liberal Jews might have a negative effect. So some of the older ones are afraid to join us.”

Jewish Sightseeing in South Italy

Before we left for Italy, Aiello and our own research had made us aware of several sites of Jewish interest in the Southern provinces of Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, and Sicily. We visited some of these before the first seder and some after, with only partial success.

Our first such stop was Trani, an exquisite medieval town on the Adriatic coast, where the 13th century Scolanova Synagogue was reconsecrated in 2005. Located on Via Sinagoga, it had been a synagogue prior to the 14th century, when the Jews of Puglia were expelled. It was used as a church until 50 years ago, when it was abandoned. We were shown the modest but beautiful ancient space by Avram Zeliko, who davens there, and whose family has lived and owned property in the synagogue area for centuries. His family came from Palestine during Roman times. The shul is recognized by the Orthodox Italian Rabbinic Council and the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, although many of its members are not observant and some are intermarried. Others were officially converted in Milan.

The town of Oria, once a major Jewish center, has a city gate known as Porta Giudea (Jewish Gate) or Porta dei Ebrei (Gate of the Jews), and one-quarter of the old city is labeled as the Jewish Quarter (Rione Giudea) on street signs. The owner of a restaurant in the quarter helped us find an unlabeled house that was formerly a synagogue, and we excitedly photographed it. There is a large, old-looking metal menorah outside the old city, near the Porta Giudea, but we could find no explanation for it.

We walked around the old area of Lecce and came across a street named after Abramo Baldes. We wanted to know more, but no one knew anything about Jews living in that quarter many years ago.

In the scenic town of Gallipoli we noticed the words “Giudecca” on a map, and set about to look for that Jewish quarter. There was no trace of the old area any more; just modern buildings. However, people were aware of the old Giudecca and pointed out where it used to be. We had better luck in Manduria, which has an intact Jewish quarter along the Vico Ebrei (Jews Alley). A privately owned museum was carved out in one of the tiny buildings with a menorah on a table, indicating that the place was probably a synagogue. We walked through the old city of Taranto looking for a sign of Jews (we had read that there were “significant traces” of a former medieval Giudecca there). We scoured the area looking for a telltale street sign, but many were unlabeled. The people we asked had never heard of Jews being there.

Venosa, where Jews settled in Roman times, was a highlight. Not only did we see ancient, Roman-style Jewish tombstones in the castle’s archeological museum, and fragments of 9th century Jewish (and other) tombstones built into the walls of an incomplete 13th century church, but we also saw the famous Jewish catacombs.

Led by restoration director Savarese, we toured the Jewish part of the catacombs at the La Madalena hill (there is an adjoining Christian complex). The complex we saw contained 108 tombs and featured special non-thermal lighting and a sophisticated computer system to monitor geophysical occurrences that might destabilize the catacombs. The complexes have been closed to the public since 1960 to safeguard the structures. Visitors can obtain prior permission by contacting Soprintendente della Basilicata, c/o Soprintendenza Archaelogica, Via Serrao, 85100 Potenza, Italy (tel. 0971 21 719), and requesting “autorizzazione visitare catacombe ebraiche di Venosa.”

The tombstones were written in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and some were inscribed with images of a menorah, shofar, or lulav and etrog. Impressive as it was to see the web of (now empty) openings that held tombs in the 4th century, it is even more so to become aware of what those tombstones (available to the public only in pamphlets) tell us. For instance, the tombstone of an adolescent girl named Faustina reveals that her funeral ceremony was attended by the whole city, including Jews, Christians, and Pagans. Markers also tell of the existence of apostuli, emissaries from Palestine collecting taxes from Diaspora Jews. Others describe the important position the departed held — city official, rabbi, physician, member of a council of elders, et al.

We stopped briefly in Castrovillari to search for a synagogue mentioned in one source. A knowledgeable man told us where the Giudecca used to be (it is not labeled), but he said the synagogue no longer exists.

Abruptly moving up to the 20th century, we saw, in Ferramonti di Tarsia, the former concentration camp where foreign and Italian Jews were interred. The Italian guards, who hated the Nazis, saved the 3000 Jews; there were only four deaths there, all of natural causes. When the Nazis came south to organize a deportation, the Italians hoisted the yellow typhus flag and the Nazis fled each time. The camp housed synagogues, two schools, and a hospital, and today it has a Museum of Tolerance. We viewed the camp through a fence since no official was available to open the gate on what was election day for a new prime minister.

In Santa Severina we were unable to find the Jewish quarter until we were advised by one man that it was the former Greek quarter. We photographed a street in the old Greek quarter, just in case. In Bova Marina, where a Roman synagogue was excavated by Enrico Tromba, we viewed the synagogue’s mosaic floor, which has been relocated to the Municipio building. It is in only fair condition, but we could make out a menorah, a shofar, and a so-called “Solomon’s Knot,” a design of interconnecting ovals with which we were not familiar.

Reggio di Calabria was our most urban stop. The city boasted a long, steep, and prominent Via Giudecca, now totally modern, with an escalator being installed down the middle! We had read, in a booklet by Enrico Tromba, about certain Jewish artifacts being located in Reggio’s national museum. We looked carefully for them in the museum, without success. We showed the booklet’s pictures of these artifacts to museum officials, who said they were housed on an upper floor that was closed for the day due to problems with restoration employees. Despite repeated appeals, they were adamant. Finally, when we asked to see the director of the museum, they found a way to admit us to the closed area. We were delighted to see a 4th century C.E. marble inscription in Greek saying “Synagogue of the Jews,” a North African oil lamp with a menorah design, and 5th century bronze coins with a menorah design found near the Bova Marina synagogue.

Sicily was particularly important in Italian Jewish history, for by the end of the 13th century Jews had fled forced conversions in the other parts of Southern Italy. They were safe in Sicily until the Spanish edict of expulsion in 1492, which also applied to Sicily, then under Spanish domination. At that time there were 100,000 Jews in Sicily, and 40 percent of Siracusa was Jewish. The state issued particularly harsh economic sanctions against Jews, resulting in over half the Jews converting.

The beautiful old part of Siracusa is known as Ortigia, and in it lies a Giudecca with five streets specifically named for the Jews living there — Via Giudecca, Vicolo Giudecca I, II, III, and IV. The best Jewish site there is a perfectly intact mikveh dating from the 6th century. It is located in a palazzo that has been skillfully renovated into the Alla Giudecca Residence Hotel, which provides guided tours of the mikveh in English and Italian. To find out when tours are scheduled, call 39 0931 22255. The hotel has a website at www.allagiudecca.it.

In Palermo, the Jewish quarter is delineated by street names in Italian, Hebrew, and Arabic. We also discovered a building on Vicolo Meschita that we were confidant was a synagogue, and a neighboring businessman confirmed this.

Summing Up

It is difficult to imagine the rich Jewish life that existed in South Italy from Roman times to 1300 (1500 in Sicily). Jewish communities flourished throughout Sicily and in Bari, Oria, Capua, Otranto, Taranto, and Venosa. Among them were painters, physicians, actors, poets, tradesmen, and peddlers. During the 9th century, schools of Hebrew poetry emerged, and 100 years later Venosa, Bari, Otranto, and Oria had Talmudic academies. It is sobering to realize that today the number of Jews in South Italy is probably fewer than 100.

In addition to establishing Ner Tamid del Sud, the first new synagogue in the region in over 500 years, Aiello has founded the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria. She has led Tu B’Shevat and Purim festivals, Shabbaton study weekends, Chanukah workshops, and Hebrew classes.

There are undoubtedly many thousands of Italians with Jewish blood in the South. Time will tell how many of them will discover and take an interest in this heritage. Rabbi Barbara Aiello is certainly doing her part to bring awareness to them.